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Embrace the American, Leave the Ugly at Home

When preparing for a vacation abroad, travelers will hear all kinds of contrasting advice about how to carry themselves in a foreign country.

On the one hand: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. On the other hand: Don’t forget where you came from.

On the one hand: Be yourself. On the other hand: Blend in with the locals.

It’s all pretty confusing; add to that the stigma of being the “typical tourist,” and it only gets worse.

Culture Jamming

Some of the tourist stereotypes border on offensive. This type of tourist travels in large groups and takes lots of pictures and video. That type of tourist sits on buses and peers out the window waiting for the next buffet. This other type of tourist puts peanut butter on the scones. Another can’t pronounce anything they see written down except brand names.

Americans traveling abroad have a particularly bad rap. They’re loud, poorly dressed and — worst of all — obvious. The Ugly American.

There are reasons for the ubiquity of this stereotype. First off, there are a lot of us. And our extreme affluence relative to the bulk of the world’s population means there are a lot of us traveling, a very expensive hobby without question.

And our Gap/Old Navy/catalogue clothing culture tends to dictate that we dress alike, and sometimes colorfully; you don’t find too much basic black at Old Navy.

So the French and the rest would rather we downplay our American-ness. But can anyone tell me why Mickey Mouse, Jerry Lewis and Cher have done so well as exports? Certainly it’s not their cross-cultural sensitivity or their understated taste. It’s their American-ness.

The Archetypal Ugly American

I’m no fan of the archetypal Ugly American. Heck, forget Americans abroad — I couldn’t even stand the “shoobies” (named for the shoeboxes shore-bound Philadelphians used to pack lunches in decades ago) who invaded my old home town near Atlantic City every summer with their accents, gruff manner and terrible driving habits.

It’s undeniable that some folks simply don’t have a feel for their surroundings, for shifting their rhythms to match the rhythms of place, for shifting their personal style to jive with the style of the country they’re in, for leaving the worst of their home style at home.

So if you’re planning to pour out of your hotel room in some khaki shorts with a money belt, a Jacksonville Dolphins baseball cap, an “I’m With Stupid” shirt, some plastic sunglasses and enough sunscreen to block out a supernova, you deserve whatever comes to you.

And if you start wailing about how you can’t find any bagels, or send back a pint of bitter because it’s warm, or whine and cry about how you can’t find the McDonald’s, and once you find it complain that the Big Macs are different — well, a pox on you and yours. (In these situations, why travel?!?)

Vive la Difference

There’s something in all of us that both fears and embraces the differences between us. The kid who moved to an American town from Europe got into fights, but also often got the girl (can I still say that these days?) because he was just different enough to be interesting.

And there’s the key — don’t bore the citizens of the world with your American-ness; try to interest them.

For example, when people ask, I tell them I’m from New Jersey. It often gets a laugh; then I tell them I live behind a mall, and that I have to drive through the parking lot to get to my house (in fact, I have a friend who does just that), and that I eat three times a day at Chuck E. Cheese.

Then I tell them I grew up in Atlantic City, actually Ventnor — “yellow on the Monopoly board.” Older folks get it; younger folks usually say “Monopoly is all the streets of London,” a reference to the licensing and bastardizing of the Monopoly board to suit local tastes. (And they say Americans have poor taste?)

If they press for more, I tell them I lived in Manhattan for a decade, spent a couple of years in Philadelphia and have family in California.

This simple information provides an opening for all kinds of discussion. Had I played it cool and deadpanned that I lived “in the United States,” it would have been game over.

Even when people get in your face, staying grounded in who you are and where you’re from won’t hurt. For example, a few weeks ago I told the story of being called “gringo” on a trip to Venezuela. I asked the folks if gringo was a bad thing to be called, and if so why they would say that to someone they don’t know. It takes a mix of pluck, daring and innocence to pull this kind of thing off, but it sure provided a conversation opener.

And hey, if I had stayed a while and they had given me the nickname gringo, I’d have lived by it.

Gringos Get the Full Show

A couple of friends recently traversed Russia, and upon their first encounter with a full Russian market, the locals could see the amazement and near-horror in my friends’ eyes. These markets are much like what open markets might have been in the U.S. 70 years ago; wild free-for-alls of full-on retail and wholesale commerce. We’re not talking about Super Fresh or even a roadside stand; we’re talking screaming, yelling, carcasses hanging from hooks, open vats of caviar, brain-curdling vodka in home-made bottles, blood everywhere.

The locals sussed my friends out for Americans almost immediately, and the show began. The merchants took their hands and plopped a bloody liver in them; another took a full swing with an ax to the cut they had requested be cooked. One merchant after another gave them a VIP’s display of their wares. Had they not been noticed for Americans, they might have been bystanders in the market; instead, they were full participants, even the stars of the show.

Leave the “Ugly” at Home

So there’s an upside to being an American abroad, no question. Here are my tips to help you remain American without earning the “ugly” adjective.

1. Dress in an understated fashion, but be yourself. You may want to leave the I’m with Stupid and South of the Border tees at home, but you don’t necessarily have to dress in black in Paris, or in mariachi costume in Mexico.

2. Don’t overplay your home town, but if asked, be forthcoming. Everyone knows someone who won’t relent when it comes to their home town, breaking into song at the mere mention of where they live (it’s always seemed to me that Alabamans and others from parts South were most likely to launch into song). When asked, volunteer some information, but understand that not the entire world thinks your U.S. state is the center of the planet.

3. Use your eyes and ears before engaging your mouth. Staying alert and attuned to everything going on around you is not only better style, but is much safer to boot. To paraphrase a very useful truism, better to be thought American than open your mouth and remove all doubt…

4. Walk, or rent a bike. Seems simple enough, but much of the world doesn’t have the addiction to the automobile that Americans do. If you think the big shiny rental car marks you as an out-of-towner in the U.S., wait until you try it in Florence. Walking, or renting a bike for more range and mobility, puts you in the midst of the motion and rhythms of a place.

5. You don’t need a picture of everything in sight. We all want photos from our trips, but a camera is the surest way to label yourself a “pure tourist.” You’re taking shots of this church and that statue, all the major monuments. You’re in none of the photos. Then when you get home, you can’t tell one church from another, you have a bunch of photos that look like cheap postcards and you realize you spent all your energy taking pictures of everything.

But if you take your camera and ask a waiter to take your picture with the owner of a small cafe where you had a great time, the memories will come flooding back.

6. Realize that just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Eating habits, religious practices, even the word for “soccer” (I still don’t call it football) will shift everywhere you go. On the other hand, you can play these for laughs or conversation given the chance, so no fear.

7. Learn the language. It’s getting there, but English is not yet spoken by all the planet. Learn a few words of the language wherever you are, and for goodness’ sake, just because someone doesn’t understand you doesn’t mean they’re deaf! If you’re thinking “man, this guy doesn’t even speak English!”, remember, you’re the illiterate in this case!

8. And another language tip… You never know who knows a few words of your language. And you can bet the words they’ll know best are the ones you don’t want them to know.

I know this one first-hand; when I was a youngster, I was in Paris watching some videos with some girls my age, and they were commenting in French on the skimpy bathing suit of one of the male performers. A couple of days later, one of them said, “Ed speaks Spanish, but knows no French.” I replied, “Well, I do know a little French. I know that you were talking about that guy’s (insert unprintable French word here) on the video the other day.”

The girls turned red, dead silence — then everyone cracked up. You never, ever know.

9. Do your homework. This one goes for everyone, but is worth mentioning: do your homework so you don’t end up tipping in Japan, or wearing shorts into a mosque in Turkey, or leaving food on your plate in Russia, or cleaning your plate in certain parts of China.

Remember: Ugly is as ugly does, but a true American is a true person of the world.

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